Supercharge your sleep

Supercharge your sleepA good night's sleep is essential for our health and wellbeing! Most of us however, will have experienced some form of sleep problems or insomnia at some stage or another. There is little worse than not being able to sleep when you want to, and sometimes the harder you try to "drop off", the harder it gets! If this sounds familiar read on for our comprehensive guide on how to supercharge your sleep the natural way!

First of all, the causes need to be identified – as there is rarely one reason – but a collection of factors that come together to cause issues with sleep.

Here are some of the classic reasons:


  • Too much caffeine (tea, coffee/energy drinks)

  • Too much chocolate (also a stimulant)

  • Too much alcohol (feels like a sedative but is actually a stimulant)

  • Too many liquids too late in the day (many of us realise we haven't drunk enough during the day and try to make up for it later on!)

  • Nutritional deficiencies (especially B vitamins and magnesium)

  • Too much adrenal and cortisol in the blood stream

  • Not enough exercise during the day

  • Too much exercise too late in the day

  • Mental agitation

  • Physical Tension

  • Not enough “wind down time”

  • Eating too late

  • Eating too early (and too little)

  • Side-effects of medication

  • Late night TV (too stimulating)

  • Anger/ resentment

  • Shock

  • Allergies

  • Over-tiredness

  • Depression

  • SAD Syndrome


So, being clear which reasons are the likeliest causes is important - knowledge is power! Having identified which of these could be the main causes, here's how to tackle them:-

Too much caffeine
You might think that you only have a few coffees a day, and you don't drink them after 4pm in the afternoon, but remember everyone's tolerances and reactions to caffeine varies hugely. The amount you consume can creep up on you during the day. Did you know that a strong cup of tea can contain as much caffeine as coffee, and that the caffeine in some fizzy/energy drinks can also be very high? Try and decrease the amount you normally ingest and see if it helps - it usually does! If your normal intake is quite high, remember to decrease it slowly as the body's reactions can be quite severe i.e. headaches, shakes etc.

Too much chocolate
Do you have a real craving for chocolate? If so you may have a few nutritional deficiencies and some blood sugar issues. Look at a low GI diet (Glycaemic Index) and talk to BioCare or a Nutritional Therapist about Magnesium and Chromium. Remember that chocolate is a stimulant and might be interfering with your sleep pattern. Try to reduce your intake and look at healthier other options that will release sugar more slowly – such as unsulphured dried apricots or fresh fruit.

Too much alcohol
Ironic isn't it- we often have a drink to unwind and relax after a hard day – but it doesn't always have the effect we're hoping for! If you're having trouble sleeping and your stress levels are high, try reducing your alcohol intake to weekends only – and see if you sleep better during the week. You'll then be clearer on how it's effecting you. It tends to be a quick way of reducing excess weight too.

Too many liquids too late in the day
This is a classic one. We're trying to look after ourselves better – get to the end of the day, and realise that we haven't had our 1.5 litres of water. It doesn't tend to be a good idea to try and fit the whole lot in the last few hours of the day though – as severe sleep loss through needing to get up 5 times in the night may be worse than temporary dehydration!

Nutritional deficiencies
Even with a healthy diet, some of us commit ourselves in so many different directions that we simply use up certain nutrients far more quickly than we can access them from our food. The reality in the modern world is also that much of the food we buy as “fresh” has in fact been in storage for days or even weeks. Try and buy locally produced, seasonal food – which will tend to be fresher and more nutritious. If your stress levels are high, it would be a good idea to check your B vitamin intake, and Magnesium levels (and trace minerals) as these can be associated with poor quality sleep.

Too much adrenal and cortisol in the blood stream
If your stress levels are high, it is very important that you have an adequate “wind down” period before bed, so that you can allow your system to balance itself out again before you go to sleep. Going straight from “fast forward” to “stop”, without your body having time to adjust, will often mean that you will lie there waiting for sleep that won't come! If you have been physically static all day, it is great (as part of your wind-down period) to go for a walk – to help your body release the “fight or flight” hormones in your blood stream. Other gentle exercises that can be helpful can include Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Yoga. Ideally avoid types of exercises that are “fast and furious” – as they can be over-stimulating at the end of the day.

Not enough exercise during the day
If your lifestyle is too sedentary, it may be difficult for you to sleep, even if your stress levels are not too high. Our systems need a balance of physical and mental stimulation to remain in balance, so if your sleep pattern is disturbed, trying a new exercise regime may well have a profoundly restorative effect. You can also try regular massage – with circulatory stimulant essential oils during the first part of the day, or relaxant oils in the later part of the day – to passively exercise your muscles and help you to relax and unwind towards the evening:

Am: 25ml Grapeseed Oil, 5ml St John's Wort, 3 drops Rosemary, 4 Geranium, 4 Bergamot and 2 Plai.
Pm: 25ml Grapeseed Oil, 5 drops Lavender, 5 Bergamot, 4 Marjoram and 2 Neroli.

Too much exercise too late in the day
As we've mentioned, exercising too late in the day can be too stimulating and can create a release of stress hormones – especially if you are pushing yourself through tiredness. If this is really the only time available, try a warm aromatherapy bath before bed, to help your body wind down and relax. The exercise regimes that are about stretching and flexibility are still a better idea than more vigorous forms. Swimming and aqua aerobics can also be fine, as they are gentle on the mind and body.

Mental agitation

If you are mentally agitated due to worries or concerns before bed, try winding down by writing a diary. Use it as a “dumping ground”, and help yourself to “disengage” from the worries of the day. Always end on an “up” note to help you think positively. Having an aromatherapy bath or vaporising relaxing essential oils in your bedroom can also be a great help – inducing a sense of peacefulness and lifting the spirits. Try vaporising 2 drops Neroli essential oil, 2 Roman Chamomile and 6 Lavender, or bathe with 15ml Bath Milk, 3 drops Frankincense, 2 Neroli and 2 Roman Chamomile. Herb teas can be beneficial too – try drinking Valerian or Chamomile tea before bed, or Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime which has a Spearmint flavour that is both relaxing and refreshing at the same time.

Tension
If you suffer from muscular tension towards the end of the day, gentle stretching exercises can help to release and relax tension. A warm aromatherapy bath can also be one of the best and most enjoyably effective options. Try: 15ml Bath Milk, 3 drops Clary Sage, 3 Marjoram and 4 Lavender. If muscular tension is a regular feature, try an aromatherapy massage once a week for a month. This will really give your therapist a chance to get deep into those muscle fibres to release built up tension. For home massage try 25ml Grapeseed Oil, 5ml St John's Wort, 3 Clary Sage, 3 Marjoram and 8 Lavender.

Not enough “Wind down time”
Whether you're self-employed or just work long hours, it is easier to over-work in this day and age than ever before. 24 hour connectivity means we can push ourselves to our absolute limits. The type of technology we have at our disposal means that, unless we are really self-disciplined, we can be answering phone calls or emails, even when we do finally get away. I used to treat a business man who would answer his phone when on the beach with his children! This means that our minds just simply do not get a chance to “switch off”, rest and recuperate. Not only does this render us incapable of relaxing when we finally try to – but the health risks of the type of electro-magnetic energy that these units emit is not yet fully understood - the technology has simply not been around for long enough for us to know. Yes, most of us are under increased financial pressure, but no amount of money can bring back our health once it is undermined for long enough. We need to learn to put back what we take out, so taking enough “time out” is vital. Difficulty in sleeping could be an early warning signal to indicate that more time for “you and yours” is needed! To help you switch off at night try vaporising 2 drops Neroli, 2 Roman Chamomile and 6 Sweet Orange in the bedroom.

Eating too late
A classic reason for poor quality of sleep! You've had no breakfast, little time for lunch and you're starving hungry when you finally get home after a long, hard day. Your food takes 2-3 hours to digest. If it lies in your gut overnight, as your digestion is under pressure when you are lying down, it can lead to fermentation, discomfort and a slowing down of your metabolic rate over time. So, eat at least 3 hours before bed and chew food thoroughly before you swallow. If you have to eat later, go for very light dishes, such as white fish with steamed vegetables, chicken stir fry or thick homemade soup.

Eating too early (and too little)
Eating your main meal in the middle of the day is great if you can manage it, but not missing out on breakfast and supper is important too. First of all, in order to access all the nutrients you require for good health and wellbeing in general – a certain amount of nutrition needs to be assimilated on a daily basis. Poor quality of sleep can also arise from waking early through hunger, as well as going to bed too full! If you've eaten a large meal earlier in the day try a fresh soup in the evening, remember this is easy to digest as it is already in a semi-liquid state. In Chinese medicine it is said that warm food is nourishing for the “Chi", i.e. good for your energy. It is also comforting towards the end of a long day.

Side-effects of medication
Many forms of medication, especially fast acting pain killers and cold/flu remedies, have caffeine in them, which many people don't realise. This is particularly ironic when you consider that the one thing that you really need when your immunity is low – is decent sleep! Read the labels on all over the counter medicines – and remember the natural approach. Very often a good regular dose of Vitamin C powder and aromatherapy inhalations will help alleviate the cold/flu symptoms without needing to resort to those allopathic medicines.

Late night TV (and electronic devices)
With current technology, many of us work late and are glued to our computer screen until late at night. The rest of us might be watching TV late into the evening, surfing the web, or reading on a Kindle, all of which stimulate our brains in a way that can keep us awake when we want to go to sleep. The nature of the material we are watching can also have an impact – watching a horror film, or an action packed adventure movie just before bed, can be a recipe for wakefulness.

Anger/ resentment
It is very difficult to have a good night's sleep if you go to bed fuming, as it’s a very burning, inflammatory type of emotion that tends to stimulate the release of stress hormones. So, talk about it if you can, to help yourself calm down. If that’s not possible, write your feelings down in that diary of yours! An aromatic bath can help, with oils to soothe those raw emotions. Vaporising oils in your bedroom can further soothe that savage breast. Regular massage can also help to ease strong, burning emotions. Try Grapeseed Oil, 5ml St John's Wort, 2 drops Rose, 2 Roman Chamomile, 5 Sandalwood and 5 Bergamot. Finally, remember anger can be transmuted fear, what is it that you're frightened of?

Shock
If you've had a shock to the system, it can really disrupt your sleep pattern. The incident can play around and around in your mind, “hot wiring” your thought processes and making restful sleep seem rather a long way away. Taking Arnica (a homeopathic remedy for bruising and shock) can be really helpful as can Bach Flower Rescue Remedy. You can also try inhaling Neroli essential oil from a tissue immediately after the shock, and massaging 5% Neroli Light into your pulse points and temples. Aromatherapy baths can also help to relax the mind. If sleep and emotional disturbance continue beyond the first week after the initial shock, try Thought Field Therapy (TFT), which is excellent at re-wiring the neural networks in the brain, and alleviating the emotional reactions.

Allergies
Recurrent sleeping problems, especially if accompanied by digestive issues and chronic fatigue, can be related to food intolerances or actual allergies to things such as gluten, dairy, and synthetic additives i.e. colourings, preservatives and flavourings. If your allergic reactions have more of a respiratory nature, or are skin-based, you could be reacting to the detergent that you wash your clothes in, or the toiletry products you are using – such as your shampoo, conditioner, or deodorant. An “Applied Kinesiologist” can help you identify which factors are causing you problems, and even help de-sensitise your body. It's important to note down all the symptoms that you experience before your consultation.

One final note in relation to allergies and sleeping problems. It is a very good idea to hoover your mattress weekly – especially if it is an old one. Most mattresses will have microscopic bed mites in their fibres, and it is their faecal matter that we can react to when it gets excessive. It gets breathed in and can cause some people to react, sometimes quite severely. A good quality mattress cover and pillow cases are advisable. You can also purchase an infra-red wand to pass over the mattress before hoovering it – which is said to kill the mites (not to be confused with bed bugs). Another option is to make an aromatherapy blend and spray on the mattress regularly. Leave to dry and air before making the bed.

Over-tiredness
Ironically, over-tiredness can create sleeping problems! If you get completely exhausted you can actually become so over-stimulated that it becomes difficult to sleep deeply. One of the indications of this is wakefulness (waking up easily throughout the night or waking up prematurely). In order to help re-balance your system specific steps need to be taken to help prevent complete exhaustion from setting in. Again, regular aromatherapy baths and massage can help re-balance the system, but if your sleeping pattern is completely disrupted, it might be useful to consider additional constitutional help. Herbal medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine can be worth consideration.

Depression
One of the first signs of depression, apart from the emotional elements, can be a deeply disrupted sleep pattern. This can then set up a vicious circle, where chronic tiredness contributes to the emotional state. Make use of uplifting, anti-depressant essential oils such as Melissa, Rose, Ylang Ylang, Geranium, Neroli, Sandalwood, Bergamot, Frankincense, Benzoin, Patchouli, Clary Sage and Jasmine. Chose the ones that you are drawn to the most, and use them regularly for massage, vaporising and in aromatic baths. You can also take Valerian in the evening to aid sleep, and St John's Wort in the morning as a natural mood enhancer. TFT and Hypnotherapy can also be effective therapies, as can CBT. Always see your GP when suffering from depression – as it is important to have someone over seeing your health-care. Although many herbs and certain anti-depressant medications cannot be taken together – many other natural medicines can be used in combination with orthodox approaches. No matter how focused on Natural Medicine you may be – sometimes a course of anti-depressants or sleeping pills can be a life-saver, and it always pays to have a balanced view.

Sad Syndrome – Seasonal Affective Disorder
This is now a great deal more recognised than it was previously – and can cause depression and sleeping issues. Try getting a full spectrum “light box” for the office or for use at home. 3 hours a day is usually enough to help your pineal gland stimulate the hormone/neuro-chemical balance you require. Vitamin D drops can also help – especially if you go outside very little in the winter months – when this condition tends to strike.

Joannah Metcalfe
Consultant Aromatherapist

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